Thursday, September 15, 2005

Houellebecq: any possibility of a literary review?

David Coward's long review of the Michel Houellebecq's new novel is curiously lacking. It was the first thing I read when opening the TLS this evening. I was willing to be convinced he's an interesting novelist. And Coward is very enthusiastic about his subject. Except he doesn't say why MH is interesting as a novelist. Plot summaries are supplied, but there's little sense of what it is like to read the novels. Of course he's interesting as a cultural phenomenon (which seems enough to many) but as a novelist? We're not told. Worse still, in the final paragraph Coward conflates what's said in the narrative with MH's opinions. Perhaps they're obviously the same, but that would suggest he's not a very interesting artist.

Nothing said before this review had persuaded me to read Houellebecq, so it was especially disappointing. On Monday I read David Sexton's feature on him in the book pages of London's Evening Standard (not online). A lot of what he says looks like the kind of journo-gossip that would have featured in a profile of Thomas Bernhard in his prime: that he's hated by the mythical literary establishment, that the po-faced middle classes love to hate him, that he's a cantankerous old bugger, and that he's a massive seller across the continent. Yet one thing is missing: the overwhelming local-level joy of reading Bernhard's unique prose is not mentioned. The pleasure in Houellebecq seems to be two-dimensional; like the sniggering at a teenager's tag on the headmaster's wall.

Sexton says MH is a cynic only because he's a hopeless romantic. This rings true. Both positions are essentially the same. It's easy to be one or the other, just like it's easy to be a Communist one decade and a Neocon the next. It takes a great artist to move beyond these tired false oppositions. But it seems there is no space in the papers to talk about them.

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